How can we resist you?

Mamma Mia! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 5 – 14

Since opening in London in 1999, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon, with good reason. The ultimate feel-good show is the type that can be returned to again and again, such is the combined appeal of its score of ABBA hits and celebratory sentiment. Still, it is interesting to see how different companies but their own stamps on the show’s formula, and in this regard Queensland Musical Theatre’s production stands tall.

The wafer-thin plot is of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Sophie Mason) tells the audience how her quest to discover the identity of her father has seen her invite three men from her free-spirited mother’s past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago…. on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to loyal and loving Sky (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to one of the men so that he can walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Carole Williams). The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. 

What makes the musical so joyful is the brilliance of ABBA’s strong story-led lyrics which weaves the songs into the storyline. Even from the opening overture montage of instrumental versions of ABBA’s hits, there is a display of excellence. Under Julie Whiting’s musical direction, the score still unfolds with some interesting touches to make it the company’s own, such as a synthy sounding ‘Honey Honey’, in which Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary, complete with intimate description of her dates with the three men, and the Greek musical characteristics that appear woven within the instrumentation of Act Two’s closer, ‘I Have a Dream’.

Bec Swain’s choreography transitions the musical numbers along with effortless efficiency, such as when Donna’s best friends, and former Donna and the Dynamos girl group, Tanya (Lisa Alsop) and Rosie (Fiona Buchanan) move us from their attempt to cheer her up with ‘Chiquitita’ to effort to convince her that she can still be the ‘Dancing Queen’ she once was in a full-scale ensemble number. The title track is similarly, smoothly punctuated by pop-up appearances of a Greek chorus of sorts and the stylised, out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack”, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, is up there with its best realisations. Similarly, the flipper boys of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me, elicit the most amplified audience reaction, thanks mostly to Darcy Rhodes, whose elevated performance of Sky’s goofy bartender best man Pepper steals every scene. And when he attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, his acrobatic animation makes for a standout number.

As with previous Queensland Musical Theatre shows, “Mamma Mia” consists of a large ensemble, all of whom project an infectious energy throughout. The lead and supporting roles are perfectly cast, with some obvious standouts. Buchanan is simply wonderful as the wisecracking, clumsy and fun Rosie. She dominates in her comic role, especially during Rosie’s wedding day proposition of Bill (David McLaughlin) in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’. Together, Buchanan and McLaughlin represent another highlight, given their genuine chemistry, her physical comedy and his animated facial expressions, which tell us so much more than his dialogue alone ever could. 

Jordan Ross as Sam and Peter Bothams as ‘Headbanger’ Harry, McLaughlin delivers strong Act Two musical numbers in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Our Last Summer’ and Williams, Alsop and Buchanan harmonise together beautifully as Donna and Dynamos. Mason has a lovely singing voice that provides some touching moments to young and optimistic bride-to-be Sophie’s journey. And in the role made famous by Meryl Streep in the movie adaptation, Williams layers strong-willed single mother Donna with some fragility in her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ admission to Sam that he broke her heart. 

While opening night sees some microphone issues and a whole lot of unnecessary theatre haze, the vitality, entertainment and engagement of this “Mamma Mia!” is undeniable. Its celebration of ABBA’s 70’s music by a cast of talented performers, creates a joyously energetic experience, which is only amplified by its now-traditional finale medley of ABBA hits and accompanying audience rise to their feet to sing and dance having the time of their lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ style.

Photo c/o – CF Photography Families

The mix of mirrors and hearts

The House of Mirrors and Hearts (Kleva Hive)

Metro Arts, Lumen Room

May 15 – 18

Appropriately, the Australian premiere season of the chamber musical “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” features a set of mirrors centre stage. Also immediately clear is the heart of the narrative, mother Anna (Fiona Buchanan), who is clearly the vibrant centre of the family whose story the show explores… that is until tragedy strikes. Fast forward seven years and the mirrors no longer gleam she tells us in the ‘The Passing of Seven Years’; the family is now operating on the bitter brink of destruction, driven by secrets and lies. The arrival of a lodger, Nathan (Christoher Batkin) forces confrontation of the emotions that Anna and her daughters Laura (Bonnie Fawcett) and Lily (Abigail Peace) have been suppressing since the accident that changed their lives.

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Traumatised by what has happened in their history the three women are living a dysfunctional disaster of their own design, spiralling towards self-destruction. It is all quite sad really and it is a credit that the production doesn’t ever judge its characters, even if we do. Alcoholic Anna is now far from the caring mother established pre-incident, relying on ‘Something for the Pain’ to keep her sane. It’s a meaty role that Buchanan sinks her teeth into, however, the show’s standout performances come courtesy of her daughters, Fawcett as the quiet and introspective Laura and especially Peace as the brazen Lily, looking to dull her pain with meaningless sexual encounters and alcohol.

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There is a lot of drama to “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” and the on-point expression and movement of all cast members, not only conveys much feeling, but allows us to be taken, if only for short interludes, out its small stage space. Indeed, the cast of seasoned local performers, is excellent. The confines of the intimate Lumen Room space, does do a disservice to the show’s material though. While having a stage packed with props does work towards conveyance of the confusion that is at core of the family’s now-existence, having characters emerging and retreating to the side of stalls area, is somewhat of a distraction, especially early on when the passage of time is signposted by change of actors from Tyallah Bullock as Young Laura and Isabel Davies as Young Lily, to their contemporary selves.

The musical, which first opened to critical acclaim off West End in 2015, has a real “Blood Brothers” type of feel to its sensibility, infused with some humour. It is a challenge however, to go from solemnity to comedy and take audience members along with you and musically, the cumbersome rhyme of ‘Something for the Pain’ is not enough to make such a seamless transition. Perhaps it is because of the space restrictions, that the bawdy possibilities of this early Act One number are not fully exploited. Still, it is a memorable experience all the same.

Despite its dark themes, the live music, which comes courtesy of Pianist Kather Gavranich, Flautist Greta Hunter and Cellist Anna Brookfield, squashed together at back of stage, is beautiful and very different from your standard musical fare. But the score comes without any real standouts apart from ‘Something for the Pain’ which serves as a lonely reprieve from an otherwise apparently repetitive and bleak score. There are vocal highlights, including Fawcett’s Act Two soaring reflection on the beauty of breaking of things and when the ensemble harmonises in the song’s progress, however, varying vocal levels in both dialogue and songs sees some Act One lines lost even to those audience members in the initial rows.

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The biggest concern of the mixed-bag of a show, however, comes through no fault of this production. The plot is quite confusing with twist and turns not entirely straightened out. “There are truths told in the shadows” we are told in reappropriated reprise of Chris Kellet’s ‘Little Bird’ song. Indeed, the secrets of which the characters sing hang over every conversation meaning that the intrigue that veils over Act One takes too long to move from tension to problematic attempt at an unrealistic resolution.

Regardless of any issues in the show’s writing, “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” represents a wonderful undertaking. Kleva Hive’ musical theatre incubator program has provided a welcomed opportunity to bring a new musical work to Brisbane and we can only await their August show, “Salt”, a localised adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play “The Lady from The Sea”, complete with original Australian compositions.

Frankenstein funnery

Young Frankenstein (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

February 1 – 23

“I’ve never seen it, but it is Mel Brooks so should be funny.” This is how I attempted to entice a +1 along to Phoenix Ensemble’s production of “Young Frankenstein”, the stage version of Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof. It is quite an apt summary actually; the musical is very Brooks and very funny in its witty parody of the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.

The story of “Young Frankenstein” (officially known as “The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein”) closely parallels that of its source text. Despite attempts to distance himself from his heritage, American professor of neurology Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced at his insistence as Fronkensteen) is lured back to Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s Victor’s estate. Once he arrives, he is tempted to stay by faithful hunchback, and grandson of Victor’s henchman, Igor (David McLaughlin) and yodelling-lab assistant Inga (Vivien Wood). Soon Frederick is lured to join the family business and repeat his grandfather’s experiment of implanting a new brain in the body of a giant corpse, thus enlivening The Monster (Brendan Dieckmann).

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Along the way, there are laughs aplenty and the spectacle of ensemble song and dance number entertainment, such as the multi-styled ‘Transylvania Mania, a doozie new dance phenomenon invented on the spur of the moment to distract angry villagers from the sounds of the awakened monster. But the early highlight is when the duo of Frederick and Igor unite ‘like Ginger and Freddie… or meatballs and spaghetti’ in ‘Together Again (for the first time)’ a delightful send-up of a musical comedy double act number. As in this song, clever lyrics and mischievous rhymes showcase much of the show’s not-so-subtle double-entendred innuendo, which is also often enhanced by the nuanced looks and gestures of McLaughlin who is always on-point as Igor.

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This is a dynamic group of performers who all convey an exuberant comic charm through their apparent understanding that comedy only works if it is played played straight.  As Frederik, Zach Price is pure musical theatre in both his vocals and physical style, particularly seen in his nervous awkwardness around the buxom assistant he has working under him (cue puns a-plenty, all intended), until his untouchable high-maintenance fiancée Elizabeth (Samara Martinelli) reappears on the scene. In complement, McLaughlin is a simply sensational as the impish sidekick Igor. All bug-eyed, bent-over and clown-like, he commands attention, even when as backdrop to the main on-stage action. His non-sequitur comedy and comments contribute much to the show’s hilarity, both in dialogue and song.

Fiona Buchanan’s performance as mysterious violin player Frau Blucher, the stern housekeeper of the estate, is also spot-on. She is not only hilarious in in her straight-faced intensity, but her Cabaret-esque tell of her past with the late Victor in ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’ is another genuine musical highlight. And while The Monster barely speaks a word, in Dieckmann’s hands, the character is a riot, especially as he progresses from pitiful to new-and-improved, in the top-hat-and-tails Fred Astaire-style tap number, Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’. His barely coherent bellows are hilarious even in repetition and the eventual full ensemble chorus number stands strong as Act Two’s highlight.

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Impressive harmonies characterise each of the musical numbers; the entire cast showcases excellent vocal abilities, not just in comic numbers but melodic songs like Act Two’s early ‘Listen to Your Heart’ from Wood as Inga. Musical numbers are also enhanced by Hanna Crowther’s quick choreography which interacts well with a simple scenic design that allows for some great gimmicky moments. Initially music competes with vocals in audience introduction to the villagers of Transylvania Heights in ‘The Happiest Town in Town’, however this soon settles to its place in support. Some microphone cue lapses and static also occasionally interrupt enjoyment, but these can be evenly forgiven given the otherwise overall excellence.

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Unlike Brooks’ hit musical “The Producers”, “Young Frankenstein” is very much an ensemble vehicle and Phoenix Ensemble has assembled an absolutely stellar cast, meaning that experience of the show flies by in a well-paced flood of laughter and song. This is, indeed, a monster of a show and while it may be old-fashioned in its shtick, its energetic fun is so shamelessly silly that you can’t help be caught up in the madcappery of its high-quality low comedy. It is not often that audience members probably leave an amateur show already wanting to see it again, however, the funnery of experience of “Young Frankenstein” is so impressive that this is very much the case, in fitting with it being among the best amateur productions I have ever seen.